President Ali Bongo: Let’s make some noise for Gabon’s one-time funk singer, by Osmund Agbo


Somewhere in Central Africa, Western scientists and conservationists, entranced by the paradisiacal beauty of 270,000 square kilometers of space covered in lush rainforest and teeming with wildlife, found an earthly paradise. It is the country of Gabon, with a population estimated at 2.3 million people, featuring coastal plains, mountains (the Cristal Mountains and the Chaillu Massif in the center), and a savanna in the east. Libreville is the country’s capital and its largest city.

Gabon is one of Africa’s wealthier nations, boasting huge oil and mineral reserves, and it’s able to protect and preserve its pristine rainforests with rich biodiversity. Since the country gained independence from France in 1960, the Bongo dynasty has ruled Gabon for 56 years. It was only during the first seven years of independence that a non-Bongo, Gabriel Léon M’ba, served as both President and Prime Minister.

An accomplished musician, Alain Bongo, whose father was the president of the Central African nation of Gabon, recorded a disco-funk album titled “A Brand New Man,” produced by the legendary Charles Bobbit. His mother, Patience Dabany, had connections with many American musicians, and in 1974, they lured James Brown and Michael Jackson to stop over in the capital of Libreville on their way to the Rumble In The Jungle boxing match in Kinshasa. Alain convinced the band to back him up on his album. And so, the iconic James Brown’s band played alongside Ali Bongo, marking one of the earliest collaborations between African and American artists, long before Burna Boy, Davido, or Wizkid were conceived.

However, Alain Bongo never pursued a career in music. Instead, he converted to Islam, changed his name to Ali, and pursued a career in politics. During his father’s presidency, he became his nation’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and years later, upon the death of his father in 2009, Omar Bongo, Ali Bongo became the president of Gabon.

Educated in a private school in France and having studied law, Ali was born on February 2, 1959. His mother was 18 years old at the time of his birth. He was conceived 18 months before the union between man and wife was consummated, sparking rumors of him being Omar Bongo’s adopted son. One legend has it that he is a Nigerian of the Igbo ethnic stock who was adopted as a child during the genocidal Nigerian-Biafran civil war. He continues to vehemently deny such a narrative, dismissing it as the handiwork of his detractors.

Aside from his interest in music, Ali is also a strong advocate for combating climate change and has made environmental conservation a lifelong goal, earning admiration from the West and benefiting his country tremendously. Not too long ago, the billionaire Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, visited Gabon and pledged $35 million in support of the nation’s efforts to fight climate change. He is also passionate about protecting wildlife and has supported laws against poaching

But while Omar is championing the cause of the environment and being the darling of the West, his fellow countrymen are being ravaged by poverty. For a country of 2.5 million people living in an oil-rich country, that was unconscionable. In contrast, the Bongo family lives a life of pure luxury, residing in gilded mansions and enjoying other perks, completely detached from the everyday struggles of their countrymen. Over more than 54 years that the family held onto the reins of power, their fortune skyrocketed while that of Gabon nosedived.

Protected by an elite squad of Republican presidential guards led by his cousin, Brice Oligui, and composed of highly trained Western mercenaries, Ali Bongo was convinced that his position was secure. He also relied on the strong support of his foreign friends. As the Grand Master of the National Grand Lodge of France (GLNF) and the head of Gabonese Freemasonry, Ali Bongo hoped to mobilize the Masonic network to protect his authority in Gabon and the world.

That would turn out to be a myth when, on August 15th, a palace coup was executed, and after 14 years as the president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Gabon, he was deposed. A video clip in which he made a last-ditch effort, begging his friends to “Make some noise,” became a viral social media meme.

The latest coup in Gabon follows a worrisome but not surprising pattern in Africa, especially among countries of the Sahel, in the last few years. President Tinubu called it a contagion of coups, and he was right. But it’s no wonder why this is the case in a continent with a 90-year-old president and a neighboring country whose president has been in power for a whopping 44 years. Point to me a young and healthy African head of state, and I will find you a unicorn. The only exceptions are in situations where the leader emerges following a coup d’é·tat or, in the case of Ali Bongo, political inheritance.

The regional body ECOWAS and its continental equivalent, the African Union, established to work toward economic progress and political stability in the region, have become nothing more than a glorified old boys’ club of soulless gerontocrats and kleptomaniacs, mostly interested in scratching each other’s backs rather than working for continental progress. They couldn’t care less about the future and well-being of the billions of people who call Africa home.

Following the spate of coups, President Paul Kagame and his Cameroonian counterpart, the 90-year-old Paul Biya, who has been in power for over donkey years, went on a binge of retiring military officers and were forced to reorganize their nations’ security architecture. Other nations followed suit. Theodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the President of Equatorial Guinea, a country bordering Gabon, is still hard at work, grooming his son, who is now the vice president, to succeed him. He too forgot that he came to power by overthrowing his uncle Marcias Nguema, whom he later executed.

Imagine if our leaders could draw wisdom from history, recognizing that the surefire way to avoid toppling and violence is to honor constitutionally mandated term limits, conduct transparent elections, and gracefully step aside. It’s not only the right path; it’s also the easier one.

Ali Bongo finds himself at a crucial crossroads. He must hope for mercy from the military and safeguard the lives of his family. Should he emerge from this trying period unscathed, perhaps it’s time for him to rekindle his love for music. Although the foreign diplomats may no longer gather at his seaside palace to enjoy his jazz improvisations, he can still find solace in his art. However, it’s worth noting that a stroke from years ago may have stolen the dexterity of his fingers.

Regardless of his fate, Ali Bongo Ondimba will eventually reunite with his father, Omar, and mother, Patience, in the afterlife. If only leaders across Africa could grasp this inevitable truth – those who cling to power at all costs are often met with a tragic end. But we have to remember, ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’

Osmund Agbo is the author of ‘Black Grit, White Knuckles: The Philosophy of Black Renaissance